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Youth, brains and body image

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Notwithstanding the formation of a new National Advisory Group on Body Image earlier this month, a government officer - who wished to remain nameless because of an obligation of “workplace loyalty” - contacted me urging me to write about “the diet industry, obesity fear mongering and eating disorders in light of the latest campaign on body image”, in the hope of giving this issue “the public discussion and interest it deserves”.

My immediate reaction was concern about the absurdity of our democratic institutions gagging intelligent discussion and about the reality of freedom of speech, but ultimately I thought this person’s obviously sincere request deserved closer examination.

Unbeknown to my correspondent, my credentials to discuss this matter aren’t academically based. Many years ago a member of my own family had an eating disorder. Strangely, given its significance at the time, it’s something she doesn’t think about nowadays. And although her experience was mercifully short lived, she found herself receiving the common adult ultimatums like "Eat or you'll be hospitalised", and "Eat or you'll die". Hardly an approach conducive to achieving a durable outcome.


She can’t now remember when or why she became trapped in her own body-focused mind. Perhaps it was an uncharitable comment from a peer about her appearance that started her off; perhaps it was a quest to fit in or be valued; perhaps her body was the only thing in her life she could control.

But what she does remember is the positive reinforcement she received when losing weight in a "plug in", body image focused society. Suddenly she was in a spiral of action, outcome and reinforcement. The more weight you lose, the more acknowledgement you get; the more acknowledgement you get, the more you set about losing, and so on until finally you have rewired your brain so that it thinks in a certain way about the way you look and dictates what you need to do to sustain it.

I assume the same thing happens in reverse for obesity: the more weight you gain, the more negative looks and comments you receive; the more comments, the more you retreat, the more you eat, the more you avoid activities that reveal your body and so on. It's just a shame I didn't know about neuroplasticity (PDF 28KB) back then - it may have helped.

Having personally closely observed that process I did - and still do - wonder whether society isn't attempting to treat the symptoms instead of the disease. In other words, talking about the consequences of eating disorders or their treatment does nothing to help a young person understand who they are, how their brain works, why they are important, where they are going, how to get there, and what they are likely to face.

I often feel empathy for young people between adolescence and adulthood. It is a time when many of them have adult thoughts and feelings in an adolescent vessel, trapped in their circumstances essentially by financial dependency. Few have any power of free choice in their daily lives. They can’t vote. Their views are too often dismissed as being unimportant or irrelevant, or just inexperienced and wrong.

Yet nothing engages young people more than allowing and encouraging them to think for themselves, to have their own views instead of having views imposed upon them, and asking them questions about life and listening intently and respectfully - and without judgment - to their responses.


Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology, described it well (PDF 60KB)when he said, "The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it ... It's a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they're not quite sure what to do with them."

But discussing the personal effects of eating disorders and body image fixations, on the one hand, and the capacity of young people to deal competently with their lives to a much greater extent than we permit them, on the other, skirts around where the problem actually originates.

It undoubtedly operates by means of social mores operating within the brain of the individual (PDF 2.12MB), through school, the family and the socio-cultural environment - which is the process of socialisation that forges identity, values, beliefs and attitudes that give the individual a place and a role in the society in which he or she grows up - but the values underlying those mores seem to be based in, or heavily contributed to by, media generated and media perpetuated imagery.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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